By J Nastranis
Nuclear disarmament campaigners have hailed the landmark resolution adopted by the United Nations on October 27 for launching negotiations in 2017 on a legally binding treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. The resolution heralds an end to two decades of paralysis in multilateral nuclear disarmament efforts.
In a historic move, at a meeting of the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, which deals with disarmament and international security, 123 member states of the UN voted in favour of the resolution, 38 voted against and 16 abstained.
The resolution will set up a UN conference beginning in March 2017, open to all member states, to negotiate a “legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination”. The negotiations will continue in June and July.
There are more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, mostly in the arsenals of just two nations: the United States and Russia. Seven other nations possess nuclear weapons: Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
Most of the nine nuclear-armed nations voted against the UN resolution. Many of their allies, including those in Europe that host nuclear weapons on their territory as part of a NATO arrangement, also failed to support the resolution.
But the nations of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the Pacific voted overwhelmingly in favour of the resolution, and are likely to be key players at the negotiating conference in New York in 2017.
The UN vote came just hours after the European Parliament adopted its own resolution on this subject – 415 in favour and 124 against, with 74 abstentions – inviting European Union member states to “participate constructively” in next year’s negotiations.
Echoing the views of a wide range if civil society and faith based organizations, Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing, said: “This is a truly historic moment for the entire world. For those of us who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is a very joyous occasion. We have been waiting so long for this day to come.”
“Nuclear weapons are absolutely abhorrent. All nations should participate in the negotiations next year to outlaw them. I hope to be there myself to remind delegates of the unspeakable suffering that nuclear weapons cause. It is all of our responsibility to make sure that such suffering never happens again.”
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a civil society coalition active in 100 countries, greeted the adoption of the resolution as a major step forward, marking a fundamental shift in the way that the world tackles this paramount threat.
“For seven decades, the UN has warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons, and people globally have campaigned for their abolition. Today the majority of states finally resolved to outlaw these weapons,” said Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN.
ICAN said, despite arm-twisting by a number of nuclear-armed states, the resolution was adopted in a landslide. A total of 57 nations were co-sponsors, with Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa taking the lead in drafting the resolution.
Arms Control Association’s Executive Director Daryl Kimball said in a statement: “Today’s vote marks a new phase in the decades-long struggle to eliminate the threats posed by nuclear weapons. In order to attain a world free of nuclear weapons, it will be necessary, at some point, to establish a legally-binding norm to prohibit such weapons. As such, the pursuit of a treaty banning the development, production, possession and use of nuclear weapons is a key step along the way.”
Kimball added: “Although the world’s nuclear-armed states will likely boycott the negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban, this unprecedented new process could help to further delegitimize nuclear weapons and strengthen the legal and political norm against their use – a worthy goal.”
Kimball said, the strong support for negotiations on a ban treaty needs to be understood as a logical international response to the growing risks and catastrophic consequences of a conflict between nuclear-armed states, the accelerating global technological nuclear arms race, and underwhelming pace of progress by the world’s nine nuclear-armed states on nuclear disarmament in recent years.
He added: “The coming ban treaty negotiations are not a substitute for necessary, progressive steps on nuclear disarmament, but they do have the potential to strengthen the taboo against the further development and use of nuclear weapons.
“In the coming months and years, the non-nuclear-weapon states and nuclear-armed states – particularly the United States, Russia, China, India and Pakistan – can and should do more to overcome old obstacles and animosities to advance disarmament and nuclear risk reduction measures, which are essential if we are to avoid nuclear conflict.”
Ahead of the adoption of the resolution on October 24, 15 Nobel Peace Prize winners urged nations to support the negotiations and to bring them “to a timely and successful conclusion so that we can proceed rapidly toward the final elimination of this existential threat to humanity”.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also appealed to governments to support this process, stating on October 12 that the international community has a “unique opportunity” to achieve a ban on the “most destructive weapon ever invented”.
Analyzing the importance of the resolution, organizations campaigning for prohibition of nuclear weapons said nuclear weapons remain the only weapons of mass destruction not yet outlawed in a comprehensive and universal manner, despite their well-documented catastrophic humanitarian and environmental impacts.
Biological weapons, chemical weapons, anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions are all explicitly prohibited under international law. But only partial prohibitions currently exist for nuclear weapons.
“A treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons would strengthen the global norm against the use and possession of these weapons, closing major loopholes in the existing international legal regime and spurring long-overdue action on disarmament,” said Fihn.
She added: “Today’s vote demonstrates very clearly that a majority of the world’s nations consider the prohibition of nuclear weapons to be necessary, feasible and urgent. They view it as the most viable option for achieving real progress on disarmament.”
The October 27 resolution, known as L.41, acts upon the key recommendation of a UN working group on nuclear disarmament that met in Geneva in 2016 to assess the merits of various proposals for achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world.
It also follows three major intergovernmental conferences examining the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, held in Norway, Mexico and Austria in 2013 and 2014. These gatherings helped reframe the nuclear weapons debate to focus on the harm that such weapons inflict on people.
The conferences also enabled non-nuclear-armed nations to play a more assertive role in the disarmament arena. By the third and final conference, which took place in Vienna in December 2014, most governments had signalled their desire to outlaw nuclear weapons.
Following the Vienna conference, ICAN was joined by several civil society and faith based organizations in garnering support for a 127-nation diplomatic pledge, known as the humanitarian pledge, committing governments to cooperate in efforts “to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons”.
The importance of the resolution also lies in the fact that for seven decades, UN members have pushed and prodded the world’s nuclear-armed states to address the threats posed by nuclear weapons.
The first resolution of the UN General Assembly First Committee on international security, which was adopted in 1946, established a commission to make proposals for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”
Twenty years have passed since a multilateral nuclear disarmament instrument was last negotiated: the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which has yet to enter into legal force due to the opposition of a handful of nations, ICAN noted.
“This treaty won’t eliminate nuclear weapons overnight,” concluded Fihn. “But it will establish a powerful new international legal standard, stigmatizing nuclear weapons and compelling nations to take urgent action on disarmament.”